Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez review the troops during a presentation of new military leaders at the Jose Maria Cordova military school in Bogota July 9, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters/John Vizcaino

(Washington, DC) – The 2017 list of candidates for army promotions in Colombia includes five officers linked by strong evidence to extrajudicial killings that are under criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. Two of them are under investigation, but resumes the Defense Ministry released on October 27, 2017, had incomplete information about all five officers’ records.

Four colonels and one army general on the list of 22 have been credibly linked to “false positive” killings and other abuses under their watch. These killings of innocent civilians were committed systematically between 2002 and 2008 to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict. The Colombian Senate will decide whether to approve these promotions in the next few weeks.

“Instead of delivering a strong message that it has closed the dark chapter of false positives, the Defense Ministry is undermining the reputation of the armed forces by seeking to promote officers linked to allegations of extrajudicial killings.” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Colombian Senate should disqualify any officers credibly implicated in serious abuses, unless and until those allegations are fully and properly investigated.”

The Colombian Senate should disqualify any officers credibly implicated in serious abuses, unless and until those allegations are fully and properly investigated.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Human Rights Watch research has shown that patterns in false-positive cases – including their systematic nature and the implausible circumstances of many of the reported combat killings – strongly suggest that commanders of units responsible for a significant number of killings knew or had reason to know about them. In addition to other forms of criminal participation, such as ordering crimes, commanders are criminally responsible under international law if they knew or had reason to know that subordinates under their effective control were committing a crime, but failed to take all necessary and reasonable steps in their power to prevent or punish those acts.

The officers are Brig. Gen. Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci, who would be promoted to major general; and Cols. Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas, Mauricio José Zabala Cardona, Óscar Reinaldo Rey Linares, and Raúl Hernando Florez Cuervo, who would be promoted to brigadier generals.

Prosecutors are investigating Brigadier General Cruz Ricci, who currently commands the army’s 6th division, for his alleged role in the killings of two civilians in July 2004, when he commanded the 9th Special Energy and Roads Battalion of the 27th brigade. Human Rights Watch had access to credible evidence implicating him, including the confession of a soldier involved in the killings who said that Gen. Cruz Ricci knew, consented to, and may have ordered the extrajudicial executions.

Colonel David Bastidas is being investigated by prosecutors for killings committed when was the second-in-command of the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion of the 4th brigade between July 2004 and October 2005. The Attorney General’s Office has open investigations into 79 killings allegedly committed by soldiers in the battalion in 2004 and 25 in 2005.

Prosecutors are also investigating dozens of false positive killings allegedly committed by the Popa battalion of the army’s 10th brigade between 2003 and 2005 when colonels Zabala Cárdona and Rey Linares occupied positions of authority within the battalion; as well as killings that may have been carried out by the Domingo Caicedo infantry battalion of the army’s sixth brigade when Florez Cuervo was its commander in 2008.

A November 2015 Senate resolution, designed to guarantee the “transparency and efficiency” of armed forces promotions, requires the Defense Ministry to publish a “summary of the resumes of candidates” online.

But limited transparency is damaging the credibility of this entire round of army promotions. All of the resumes – unlike those of candidates in other branches of the military – lack the dates for the officers’ service in their military units. The dates are critically important in assessing whether any of them could have been involved in abuses. But the resumes provide irrelevant information in great detail, including the dates of the officers’ marriage and of the birth of their children.

Even more troubling, Colonel David Bastidas’ resume omits that he served in the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion, although he had acknowledged that he was the second-in-command of that unit when questioned by prosecutors in September 2017, according to a transcript of the hearing that Human Rights Watch reviewed.

“The Defense Ministry thought it important to disclose the date an officer up for promotion was married, while omitting that he played a leading role in a military unit that may have been responsible for scores of killings,” Vivanco said. “Instead of disqualifying soldiers linked to false positive killings that are still under criminal investigation, the Defense Ministry seems to be concealing key information that raises concerns about their possible role in these atrocious crimes.”

On August 14, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and other officials expressing concern that the four colonels involved were taking classes to be promoted to generals. Human Rights Watch asked the government for additional information or clarifications on why it believed that promoting these colonels would be appropriate. The Defense Ministry has not replied.

Colombian courts have convicted hundreds of soldiers involved in extrajudicial killings, the vast majority of them low-ranking soldiers. However, authorities have failed to prosecute senior army officers allegedly responsible for killings and instead have promoted many of them through the military ranks, allowing several to hold top positions within the armed forces. Three of the 10 army divisions are currently commanded by senior officers who are facing investigations for their alleged role in human rights abuses. The country’s current top commander, Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, is under investigation for killings committed under his watch.

“Naturally, each of these five officers enjoys the presumption of innocence,” Vivanco said. “But promoting officers while they are still under investigation would signal that Colombian authorities are not serious about ensuring justice for false positives.”

For an analysis of the evidence against these five soldiers, please see below.

Officers Possibly Involved in Killings and Set to Be Promoted
Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of judicial rulings, testimony, Attorney General’s Office reports, and other files, and interviewed prosecutors, to analyze the records of the army officers who have been put forward for promotion. Two of the five are under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office for their role in killings. The other three are not currently under investigation, but prosecutors are investigating numerous killings under their watch. The following is a summary of the evidence implicating the five officers.

General Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci
Brig. Gen. Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci currently commands the army’s sixth division. According to an Attorney General’s Office document reviewed by Human Rights Watch, he is facing investigation for his alleged role in the July 2004 killing of Silvio Hernán Morales Argotty, a farmer, and an unidentified man in the southern province of Putumayo when he commanded the 9th Special Energy and Roads Battalion of the 27th brigade.

In November 2015, a court convicted Sgt. Juan Pablo Sierra Daza for his role in these killings. Sierra Daza confessed and told prosecutors that the then-Colonel Cruz Ricci knew, consented to, and may have ordered, the killings. Sierra Daza said, in a statement to prosecutors that Human Rights Watch reviewed that his base commander told him that Cruz Ricci was concerned that the battalion had not reported killings for a long time, so they had “staged an operation” with victims that would be “delivered” by paramilitaries. Cruz Ricci was “informed” after the victims were killed, Sierra Daza said, and was awarded a trip overseas for reporting these alleged combat killings.

Human Rights Watch reviewed several files signed by Cruz Ricci regarding the operation in which the two civilians were killed, including the “order of operations” authorizing the mission, a report saying that the victims were killed in combat, and a document certifying the amount of ammunition allegedly spent in combat. Sierra Daza told prosecutors that these documents were “fake,” fabricated to make the extrajudicial killings appear as legal combat casualties.

On September 27, 2017, a prosecutor in Cali ordered that army Capt. Harley Andrés Martínez Castaño – who commanded a squad within Cruz Ricci’s 9th Special Energy and Roads Battalion – be arrested and sent to pretrial detention pending his own trial on charges related to these extrajudicial executions. That prosecutor, who is not in charge of prosecuting Cruz Ricci, described the killings as a “Machiavellian plan orchestrated by Cruz Ricci… Sierra Daza, Martínez Castaño” and another soldier.

Human Rights Watch has seen evidence indicating that Sierra Daza also implicated Cruz Ricci in other killings. Sierra Daza had the following exchange with prosecutors in August 2013:

Prosecutor: Tell us if before or after these events (the July 2004 killings), you had information that the base commander or the battalion commander (Cruz Ricci) had ordered the killings of civilians in combat to portray them as guerrilla fighters.

Sierra Daza: Yes, after these events, in another [false positive] I engaged in, a month, or a month and a half later, in the same rural hamlet of Arizona, with the same mechanisms of the case for which I’m being questioned today. They (Cruz Ricci and the base commander) must have fabricated the order of operations. The Attorney General’s Office can ask [authorities for information about] another operation in which I participated and for which I signed the patrol report. There are several other killings, approximately two or three more, in the month of July and in that same hamlet. I ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate.

In October 2013, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent body in charge of protecting human rights, asked prosecutors to summon Cruz Ricci for questioning – one of the first formal steps in criminal investigations under Colombian law. He has yet to be questioned and prosecutors have yet to indicate whether they intend to charge him.

Colonel Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas

Col. Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas is under investigation in relation to killings when he was the second-in-command of the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion of the fourth brigade between July 2004 and October 2005.

In September 2017, prosecutors questioned David Bastidas – who at the time was taking classes to be promoted to general – regarding his role in several killings, according to a transcript of the hearing Human Rights Watch reviewed. It says that David Bastidas is under investigation for allegations that he failed to act on numerous killings under his watch, including:

  • On July 26, 2004, soldiers from the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion killed Uber Sneider Giraldo Garcia and Disney Villegas Villegas, young men from the San Luis municipality, in Antioquia, and reported them as “no name” enemies killed in combat. Courts determined that soldiers had arrested the two men and murdered them. Soldiers also detained another civilian, subjected him to abuses that may amount to “torture,” and released him, prosecutors said in the hearing.
  • On August 3, 2004, soldiers killed Alvaro de Jesus Garcia Idarraga, a boy who was picking oranges close to his school. The Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion later reported him as a guerrilla fighter of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed in combat.
  • On October 25, 2004, soldiers killed Jhon Jaime Arboleda Cardona, a man with a mental condition, in San Carlos, Antioquia, and reported him as a guerrilla fighter killed in combat. Arboleda Carmona, originally from Medellin, had traveled to San Carlos to visit his grandmother, prosecutors said in the hearing.

Overall, the Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into 79 killings allegedly committed by soldiers in the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion in 2004, and 25 in 2005, according to an Attorney General’s Office 2016 report.

Colonel Mauricio José Zabala Cardona

Col. Mauricio José Zabala Cardona oversaw military operations of the Popa battalion of the 10th brigade during part of 2003 and was appointed second-in-command in 2004. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into 26 killings allegedly committed by Popa battalion soldiers in 2003 and 13 others in 2004, according to a 2016 Attorney General’s Office report that Human Rights Watch reviewed. These include at least four cases in which Colombian courts convicted 26 army soldiers for their role in killing four civilians.

In 2011, Zabala Cardona said in sworn testimony that, at the time of the events, he “did not hear about any irregularities” and believed that the killings “were not extrajudicial executions,” said a court ruling Human Rights Watch reviewed. Zabala Cardona said that Lieutenant Carlos Andres Lora Cabrales – who has confessed to killings and is serving a prison sentence – “deceived” him and others to believe that these were legal killings. However, several factors taken together – apart from the sheer number of killings under his watch – suggest that Zabala Cardona had reason to know about the executions:

  • In February 2004, soldiers of the Popa battalion killed Juan Enemias Daza Carrillo, an indigenous farmer, in Valledupar and reported him as a “no name” casualty killed in combat. The court that convicted the accused killers concluded that Daza Carillo was detained while traveling with his sons. His sons continued home. Daza Carrillo was reported as an army kill. Then-major Zabala Cardona had information at various stages about this reported killing and the implausible version of events reported by soldiers, which might have allowed him to discern that it was an extrajudicial execution and not a combat killing. The ruling says that Zabala Cardona signed the “order of operations” authorizing the operation, produced a report about the operation saying that the killing occurred during combat with 15 enemies, and later received a report from an officer who told him that the killing occurred after a single man started shooting at a group of at least five soldiers. The court concluded that the Popa battalion did not follow the legally required process to assess the legality of the alleged killing.
  • In August 2003, soldiers of the Popa battalion killed Tañia Solano and Juan Carlos Galvis, both civilians, and reported them as guerrillas of the FARC killed in combat. Zabala Cardona was close to the events and could have known about the implausible circumstances. An official Popa document cited in the ruling convicting the suspects and the testimony of two soldiers reproduced there indicates that then-major Zabala Cardona was responsible for taking the bodies of the two, along with their weapons, from the place of the killings, apparently to the military base. The court concluded that Popa soldiers shot the two victims at short range to finish them off and placed weapons on their dead bodies. Additionally, prosecutors proved many irregularities in the reported killings: they were reported before the victims were dead and the witnesses who testified that Galvis and Solano belonged to the FARC were detained by Popa soldiers and released under the condition that they signed a document saying that they had received “good treatment.”

Colonel Óscar Reinaldo Rey Linares

Col. Óscar Reinaldo Rey Linares was the second-in-command of the Popa battalion for part of 2004 and 2005. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating 13 killings allegedly committed by its soldiers in 2004 and 21 in 2005, according to a 2016 Attorney General’s Office report that Human Rights Watch reviewed. These include at least four cases in which Colombian courts have convicted nine Popa battalion soldiers for their role in 10 killings in 2005.

For example, in February 2005, when Rey Linares was the battalion’s second-in-command, soldiers from the battalion took Hermes Enrique Carrillo Arias, an indigenous civilian, and 13-year-old Nohemí Esther Pacheco Zabata from their house at dawn, murdered them, placed weapons on their bodies, and reported them as FARC guerrillas killed in combat. The court that convicted the soldiers concluded that the victims were shot in the back and that their alleged weapons had never been fired. It also found that the Popa battalion lacked the legally required documents on the operation, including those that should have recorded the amount of ammunition used in the alleged firefight. On May 2013, a high-court in Bogotá requested the Attorney General’s Office investigate the “possible [criminal] conduct due to [possible] lack of control by the superiors [of the Popa battalion],” according to the ruling. However, an official within the Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch, in July 2017, that no record existed of investigations regarding Rey Linares’ possible role in these or other crimes.

Colonel Raúl Hernando Florez Cuervo

Col. Raúl Hernando Florez Cuervo commanded the Domingo Caicedo infantry battalion of the sixth brigade for at least part of 2008. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating at least five killings committed by the battalion in 2008.

In May 2014, a court in Bogotá convicted five soldiers in Florez Cuervo’s battalion for the January 2008 killing of Israel González, a trade unionist whom battalion soldiers reported as a guerrilla fighter killed in combat. The court concluded that the combat never took place. Instead, soldiers murdered González and placed unused weapons and a broken radio containing army batteries on his dead body. Florez Cuervo had signed the “operations order” authorizing the operation in which González was killed.

The court asked the Attorney General’s Office to “carry out investigations regarding other people possibly responsible for these crimes who could have relation with the signing of orders for the operation in which Israel González was killed.” However, an official within the Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch, in July 2017, that no record existed of investigations into Florez Cuervo’s possible role in killings by the Domingo Caicedo battalion.